Atmel Introduces Low-Power Touch Technology, Could Finally Hit A Homerun in Capacitive Touch

Atmel, darling of the maker-verse, announced their latest ultra-low powered touch interface as a part of their QTouch lineup to be available on all of their Cortex M0+ -based SMART MCU devices that include the new Peripheral Touch Control core, beginning February 24, 2015.   The new technology, built on a new Peripheral Touch Control (PTC) core promises touch resolution to 2mm on a 2.7″ surface (love that they mixed their units) with scan rates up to 100Hz and drawing 4uA standby current when configured to wake-up on touch.  A larger 5.5″ [square?] surface requires a 14mm edge-t0-edge touch separation (about the size of an adult finger).  The new PTC core will be included in all devices, overcoming the need for specialty controllers (as it was back in early days of the QTouch lineup).

Now at decent-but-not-so-otherworldly resolutions and with an eye clearly for battery powered applications, it’s clear Atmel wants these devices to cement them at the center of all things wearable and position them in other cap touch markets such as “remote controls and PCB/gaming controls”.   What’s more, it appears Atmel’s making an early play at a segment of a larger market currently dominated by their smaller (as a measure of revenue) competitors Microchip and Cypress Semiconductor.

Seems more of the same…What’s the big deal?

Capacitive touch is a fairly mature technology and one that again, resides in a market dominated by Cypress in the handset space and Microchip, next in line.  But what neither competitor company has (at least not like Atmel has it) is the deep and abiding love of the maker/hacker-turned-startup-entrepreneur…And without a doubt, this is the market most in touch (pun intended) with emerging technologies like wearables and by extension, the Internet of Things.  Thus, building a position around touch as it relates to these emerging technologies seems only right for Atmel.  As the Director of QTouch Product Marketing, Geir Kjosavik put it, “Products in this new category require a surface solution with lower power consumption and higher cost optimization that do not require the performance from higher-end touchscreen controllers.”  And though to some this may seem concessionary; this may just as well be seen as a doubling-down on the things that Atmel does right.  After all, though the mobile handset market is alluring with it’s high volumes; the margins are lower and the entrenchment runs deep.  Similarly in automotive where timelines are loooong and like home appliances, where dedicated, high-reliability controllers are required.  Likewise, as companies like Qualcomm or Broadcom or certainly Spreadtrum look to consolidate more and more resources on the mobile chips, it may be that the island is simply shrinking for 3rd party touch controllers.

Either way, taking a position to be the leader in this space finds Atmel in their sweet spot and if they can move their maker fan-boys and AVR freaks into the ARM devices in a big way, whilst the money for new hardware startups continues to flow and simultaneously, hardware development at least appears to get easier; this could be a big play for a new generation of touch interfaces that make even low-volume products look and behave brilliantly.  The question remains, what will we do with them?

We’ll hope to get some demo units in house after the official launch at Embedded World in Nuremberg on 24-Feb.  With those in hand, we’ll try and compile a review and a few experiences on getting started with the new hardware.  Details can be found on the Atmel website in a press release here.


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